REVIEW: Mobile Suit Gundam – Cucuruz Doan’s Island (2022)

An Anime film released as a special event in theaters

Perhaps one of the biggest shames in all of Mobile Suit Gundam history was the state of the fifteenth episode of the original 1979 TV show, a rarely seen and much maligned adventure that franchise creator Yoshiyuki Tomino practicily pleaded with fans to avoid. In a 2002 Anime Expo Q&A session, when asked about the episode and what happened, the notoriously cranky Tomino simply stated “I asked that it be skipped […]There’s a reason, but since the staff is still alive, I can’t talk about it.” and would not elaborate further. Looking back, there are many reasons that the episode gains this response from fans and creators alike, but the chief culprit boils down to absolutely atrocious animation and off-model characters.

One common reason often cited for the issues was the absence of one of the main staff members at about the halfway mark of the show’s production. Art director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko faced an extended hospital stay at some point, and had to watch the terror unfold via his bed as the show aired:

“It was so hard to watch, I felt so bad. I couldn’t give it my undivided attention. Every time I did I thought, ‘oh no, that’s wrong’ or ‘oh, that’s so bad.’ I was in a private room with a bed and kept pulling the blanket over my head until I was completely underneath unable to watch anymore. I would sneak a peek and see a terrifying Gundam staring back at me and think of how terrible it was. I feel bad for the people that worked on it, that’s just the conditions they had to work with.”

Via 2019 NHK documentary Making Gundam: The Inside Story

Another possibility could have been the often-used practice of outsourcing animation duties to make a deadline or save money, which sometimes resulted in prisoners animating popular TV shows or untrained staff trying to get their foot in the door of the animation industry being put on tasks well above their skill. The truth is, we may never the whole story, but despite the ugly Gundam and lanky Zaku, the story of Cucuruz Doan’s Island was a solid side-step from the normal progression of the show. All the episode needed was a fresh start, a second chance at life rarely given to situations like this – that is until Sunrise announced a reboot of this episode as a feature-length film, the topic of today’s review.

“After enduring a defensive battle in Jaburo, the Earth Federation Forces plan to launch an operation to capture Odessa, the headquarters of Zeon’s Earth Attack Force. Amuro and the White Base head to Belfast to resupply before the mission. However, the White Base receives new orders; to head to an uninhabited island known as the Island of No Return to wipe out stragglers. Amuro sets out on the island in search of soldiers that were left behind but instead finds a group of children and a Zaku that shouldn’t be there. Losing the Gundam in a battle, Amuro meets a man who calls himself Cucuruz Doan. Uncovering the secrets of the island, can Amuro find the Gundam again and escape safely…?”

While not as flashy as 2021’s Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway, I honestly prefer what we have here due to my taste for older-styled animation and this film doing a great job of modernizing the character designs and art style of something from more than forty years ago. Make no mistake, the animation is VERY modern, especially in the gorgeously rendered 3D-animated battle scenes, but the producers tried to stay as close to the source material as possible. I watched this on the big screen and was taken aback by how great this looked and how much I would now love for them to do remakes of the original Gundam films in this style. I know that will likely not happen, but one can have dreams.

One may notice that Doan’s Zaku looks somewhat odd, perhaps even off-model for a Zaku. This little tidbit was great because It’s intentionally designed to resemble the poorly drawn Zaku from the original Cucuruz Doan’s Island, with its oddly long snout and slender build. I loved how it was explained in-universe as being the result of being badly beaten up and on the verge of falling apart with large chunks of armor missing. Sadly, we didn’t get the Gundam’s inflated head represented at any point in this movie which is probably for the best.

Side note: I also adored the use of revamped 1979 music in this film.

There are some differences between this film and the original episode that came from the necessity of repurposing a twenty minute runtime into a full-length feature. Of course, everyone gets FAR more character building time, with even the most minor war orphan character getting some time to shine here or there. The battle scenes are infinitely better and Doan’s Zaku is more menacing, almost coming across as a horror villain in the initial stages of the film. Now equipped with a Heat-hawk, Doan shows why he’s such a feared battlefield menace, and why a man in a run-down Zaku can cause so much damage. The movie also uses its extra time to space things out a bit, although never going into the territory of feeling padded out like one would imagine.

There are some definite surface level Apocalypse Now vibes in this film which are a nice addition to the plot. Granted, Doan isn’t a crazy psychopath like Colonel Kurtz, but one can see the inspiration was there. Having a wayward soldier defect to what is thought to be an uninhabited island, creating his own kingdom of sorts, and trying to live a life away from war as possible gives Cucuruz Doan the motivation he needs to be an important side character versus a mere footnote as before. These are not the only differences in the film, as pretty much everything gets bumped up. There are more orphans in Doan’s care, we see what political maneuvering is going on behind the scenes, a reason why Doan is even on the island in the first place, the reason Zeon is trying to secure it, and why he has abandoned the Zeon cause. In just about every single way possible, this is the far superior version of this story and stands as one of my favorite Gundam films I have ever seen.

This is the second time I have seen a Gundam film in the theater and I have loved it both times. There’s just something cool that comes from seeing anime in the theater, considering my initial foray into the fandom came on the back of bootlegged VHS tapes and questionable gray-market DVDs purchased from Chinese resellers. In my old man voice: “Kids these days won’t know what we went through to get to this point….something something uphill both ways in the snow”. In the span of less than a month, I saw this and an entire new Dragonball film in theaters like this is an everyday occurance, which just blows me away. Sadly, this was a two-day event, and the only way to see this now will be to wait until around Thanksgiving for the home media/streaming release. It’s definitely worth buying, and I can’t wait for more.

To see the original episode, See below:

For the new film’s trailer, see below:

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